9 January 2018
A Conversation with Jahmal B. Golden
Jahmal B. Golden is a NY-based poet and performer. They are the curator of Fox Wedding, a reading and performance series, and author of Yves, Ides, Solstice, a collection of poems published in 2017 by Easy Village Publishing.
Jahmal and I made plans to meet outside the Prospect Park subway station on a hot July morning. We’d met at a reading a few months prior and had been tossing around the idea of a doing an interview ever since. Jahmal arrives dressed in white, a few minutes late, and we begin to make our way through the park. It takes us a good 45-minutes to settle on a suitable place to do the interview, a grassy hilltop overlooking a large open field. We sit in the shade and begin.
At the release for Yves, Ide, Solstice, you mentioned that you’ve been reading some of the poems in the book for quite a while now. Have they evolved over that time?
I think that at the book launch I mentioned that because it was getting to a point where I’d compiled those poems rather quickly and I spent a lot of time editing. Some of the poems are things that I wrote—for example like “Moonstruck.” I read it at another reading and it sounded completely different. It was just a completely different poem.
I guess more of the challenge with this book was editing and refining things to a quality that was like more ‘now’ for me. I had to kind of—in a way modernize everything. But there are also poems in it that are brand new.
Did you know when you were writing these poems that you were like writing them to be part of a book, or was it something you realized later on in the process?
When Kaps (Alex Kapsidelis) proposed it, I liked the idea of it because I’d been writing for years. So to answer your question, no, I didn’t know it was going to be in a book. I just write very profusely and I edit very frantically. Sometimes I have a moment, or a few days where I can’t get some of the work that I’ve written out of my head and then I just kind of sit with it and fine tune it. So an excuse to stop doing that was to get them published. Like I said, some of the poems are really old and I was like, “Okay, one last edit.”
What would you say the book is about? I know that’s a hard question to answer…
It totally is. I knew you were going to ask that and I was on the train like, “What the fuck is this book about?”
I mean, I don’t necessarily think that a book has to be about a specific thing, but I was curious as to what your take on it would be.
Well, I guess the easiest way—people ask what the triptych is about and why that’s so central to this sort of narrative. It was mostly that the character Yves in my life and the main voice in the book. They put a lot of pressure on the Trinity, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, or whatever. I have negated Christianity in a lot of ways especially in my work and so there’s still part of me that holds onto that mythology.
Were you raised Christian?
Not raised Christian, but in proximity to Christianity always. My grandmother and all of her immediate family, my mother was definitely the black sheep of our family by not participating in Christianity at all. So I grew up really under her. I would go to church when my grandmother had me, which was very often, but I knew I could keep a separation from it. It made me think really hard about specific images and tropes in the Bible and so I always liked the idea of this Trinity and that there was some sort of wholeness there.
Threes have always followed me in a weird way. But this particular triptych was like—can you canonize love in a way? Can you apply or fuse the Spirit of what you think is holy and what love means to you? Yves was the last part of it because Yves is kind of like the completion, but Yves is like the beginning and the end, as Yves are literally. And then the Solstice—that whole chapter is in the beginning. Whenever I think about the Solstice I think about this looming daylight and I think about the summer solstice.
One of the poems in the first piece ends with, “My days are made of this.” And so that whole part is just dealing with the fact that your life is what your life is made of, and what it looks like under a spotlight. Then the middle, Ide, is this wavering omen of like, “Is it coming to an end?” or “Did you miss what was just beginning for you?” I guess if were to say what the book is about, it’s about going from being sure about love, to being unsure in love, to kind of giving up love.
Do you think they reflect the things that have happened to you in your life?
In a way, yeah. I’m really thankful for my experiences with intimacy, but these are kind of like my confessions, it’s like confessing the things that I don’t want to ever say to people in particular.
How does the phrase “Be Holy,” tie into your writing?
“Be Holy” started with another weird triptych. My father used to say, “Peace, perfect peace,” or he’d put a P and a small 3 next to it and that was like his holy mantra or whatever. Little things like that stick with you as a kid. These threes meant a lot to me. I was always thinking about what was holy and how to claim it. So when I was younger also I thought it was really clever to say “Be Golden,” because my name is Jahmal Golden.
And actually the first book I ever compiled was when I was eleven. I compiled the book, laid it out and made my Mom help me print it and get it bound. It was called “Be Golden.” I thought that if there was going to be a next chapter, it had to be “Be Holy.” [laughs]
Traditionally speaking, you have this narrative of the writer as a solitary person who spends a lot of time alone, but you seem to be like very social. How does the writing community and the performative aspect of your art and play into the writing process?
I do spend a lot of time alone. More time than people suspect. But as far as writing goes, I tend to reflect a lot of what I’ve written about and experiment with it in performance art. That’s my relation to performance in writing.
As a writing community –I feel like it’s very separated and very fragmented around New York. I oftentimes don’t even feel like I’m a part of the writing community. There are a lot of poets that I really admire, but I pretty much shut down the Fox Wedding for a lot of reasons, and it will come back, but right now, I needed a break from that too.
That’s interesting because I was going to ask if you felt like there is a strong sense of community here and if it pushed you in certain ways.
It became very self-serving to people. There are a lot of people who had never read in public and that was what I was hoping to foster. I realized that people were really only coming and participating so that they could hear themselves or that they could be heard. There’s nothing really wrong with that. It just wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted a community. It turned me into a more critical person. And then I was like, “I don’t like this relationship to poetry in particular because it means so much to me.”
I think it’s good to have a critical take, especially of community because it’s very easy to get caught up in these circles and kind of like lose track of why everyone’s there.
Right, it was really that the message was being lost and the point was the poetry but I also really wanted to bring people together in a way where it wasn’t just queer. It certainly wasn’t just going to be gay at all. I didn’t want it to be a lot of this cis versus trans bullshit that I experienced at some of the later readings and parties I was doing.
There was a few times where I just caught myself so upset the end of a reading. It also had a lot to do with the spaces that I was using, doing a reading in a place where people can have alcohol and that anyone can be in there. It opened a lot of people to certain risks.
As far as it not being as safe of a space because anyone can show up?
Well I liked that quality. But also people being drunk and hostile or defensive, or just too reactive. It became really hard for me. I think another reason why people think that I’m very sociable is that I don’t box myself into a corner with who I associate with most. I’m not only hanging out with other trans people. I’m not only hanging out with Black people. I am not trying to only hang out with cis white men or anything like that. I just have a lot of people from all over that I think I can meld with, that I can assume there can be some sort of mutual respect that we don’t even have to discuss my intersectional existence all the time.
It must take a certain level of confidence to live that way.
It’s not really confidence. I just realized that I didn’t want to live in a way where I couldn’t be everywhere. I’m fully aware of the fact that spatially I can’t be everywhere. I’m fully aware that I can’t just exist in certain parts of America or Europe or anywhere really. That’s just unsafe entirely for me, but I was like in New York? I want to know everybody and I want to be able to communicate my interests with like-minded people regardless of how I present to them. But as I said, organizing and doing more event planning stuff, I realized that that is actually something that you can do. It’s just a lot harder.
Especially when you’re the one who’s mediating it and bringing all these different types of people together.
Exactly. I had to answer to everyone, anyone who ever felt like a victim, anyone who was offended, anyone who just had something to say.
Did you feel like there were constructive things that came out of it?
Absolutely. There are people who I know would not talk at all, there are people who would never have come into contact with each other if not for in that circle. I mean, hello, I solidified my book at one of my readings. I’m really happy that some people get to see my true colors as far as how I felt about censorship in some of those readings, I knew that sometimes it was going to be hard, but I was definitely not going to tolerate censorship on behalf of an audience or a community.
What do you mean by censorship?
Censoring someone’s work. In particular, like reacting to someone’s work as if it didn’t deserve to be read or heard. I started this reading the day after Trump was elected. I was fully aware that there was going to be a lot of things said in this space that I wasn’t going to be able to control things that obviously needed to be said and heard.
I had a few people at certain points ask, “Who are all these cis men reading at this reading series?” I had never specified that this was a queer event. I had to come into contact with censorship in a way that I never had to before. I was just like, “Why are people expecting this of me?”
So you eventually stopped hosting readings at a certain point?
Not entirely. It has a different shape right now. I do this party now called the Fox Eclipse where I take some of my favorite and most dedicated readers and had them start working with producers that I know around New York’s scene. And those producers would DJ at the event while the reader reads and it became this spontaneous performance series. I’ve done three of them now, they’re really fun. I needed to back away from the structure of it—the structure of having a reading.
I think it’s always interesting to step back and find new ways to share these kinds of things because it does get stale when you are constantly seeing art of any kind presented in the same format over and over again.
Right, and it has to. Innovation is key even though part of me is like that’s really problematic. I’m not worried about keeping current. I’m a writer. I’m using one of the most antiquitous styles to make my work.
It always interesting when you can take a space and transform it to be whatever you want, regardless of how it exists from day to day.
That was how the Sampler was when I started readings there. The thing is, I go to these places all the time and never have to confront half the things that I know some of my friends would. Maybe that is sort of a confidence thing. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of being so confident. Even myself, as I kind of changed a little bit more, I realize that people are paying a little bit more attention to me because I’m pushing the gender lines a little bit more.
I mean I’ve always not been very gendered. But to some people it’s becoming more apparent. But some of my friends have it a lot worse. And so it is something to be an organizer and an event planner, I always have to consider that.
You have to bear some responsibility for…
Everything that could happen at the event.
I mean, honestly it’s a blessing to see it happen in a safe way, but you’re always aware of the smallest micro aggressions that could turn into huge events. They could be huge impactful moments.
It is interesting the way different spaces come in and out. You kind of use them for whatever you can while it’s possible and then they’re gone and the community still exists but is always adapting itself to whatever new spaces are available—maybe New York is specific to that.
I wonder. I wonder. I think that the landscape of New York is always changing and it’s part of the job of any POC to kind of clock gentrification for what it is, and also to try to own it. Not own what’s happening, how detrimental it is, but to use it to your betterment, rather than to reflect on how terrible the act itself is. Either to protest it actively or to use what’s around you and make it something for you and the community that’s still there.
What are you working on next as far as writing or a new event series?
I want to compile this collection about family that’s kind of digging through a lot of my memories that I prefer not to think about. It’s been nice. I think that abstraction is one of my greatest tools. It’s helped me through a lot of my own trauma. So currently what I’m working on is like unpacking my trauma.
But then there’s another collection also. I have a bunch of poems based in this mythology of New York, kind of like projecting my own internal mythology onto the city landscape. I always thought that would be a really interesting collection to have fleshed out. I’m working on these two things right now. I actually have some really good new stuff for both of those. That’s really exciting.
Have you been reading new material at all?
So Yves, Ide, Solstice is a little bit more than a dozen poems that I have been working with and reading for a while, but I still have like a hundred poems that just feel like thoughts. But generally I write so much that I can read a lot of new stuff, but I’m far too in my head to do it sometimes, and I’m like, “Oh no, this is just absolutely not done.”
But right now, I have this poem called, “I’m Going to Shut You Up.” It’s my war cry right now. And it feels really good. I wrote that right before the book came out and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is the next step.” I have no idea what it’s for. I’m not writing it for a collection, but it’s just a poem that I really identify with right now. I read that one recently. So yeah, I’m always writing. It never stops.
I was also just asked to help create this live stream performance series in September in my friend’s new space. Stay tuned. I’m probably going to be asking a lot of people from all over my life to kind of participate in some sort of activity in front of a camera for this strange sort of Warholian archive my friend is building.
Does it have a name yet?
No, not yet. I think that he might propose something. I might change it for my curation for that. I wonder if he’s going to work with other—a few different artists to like curate different things. Right now, I think it’s a trial of four weeks that I’ll be doing it. Yeah, I’m excited for that actually. I’m excited to see like what the fuck I’m going to try to do.